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September 15 2010 - A recent study from the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C. analyzes data from the Current Population Survey to assess the state of gender segregation in U.S. employment since the early 1970s.

Researchers found that women are making progress in some lucrative male-dominated professions. For example, the percentage of women lawyers has risen from 4.0 per cent in 1972 to 32.2 per cent in 2009. However, according to one frequently used measure, the Index of Dissimilarity, overall progress towards equity has stalled since 1996. Women continue to dominate traditional female professions that are usually less well paid. In 2009, they accounted for over 95 per cent of kindergarten teachers, librarians, dental assistants and registered nurses.

Some sectors have seen a significant deterioration, with the percentage of women computer programmers falling from more than one-third in the late 1980s to less than 21 per cent, and from 13 per cent of civil engineers in 2005 to just over 7 per cent in 2009. Researchers found that young women experienced more segregation in 2009 than they did ten years previously; wiping out about 20 per cent of the improvement achieved since 1968.

Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research said:

"It is very likely that the stalled progress in integrating the labor market is contributing to the failure of the wage gap to close."

Based on 2009 earnings data, the study examines the relationship between median earnings and the gender composition of occupations. It differentiates between those that are predominantly male or female, and those that are relatively gender balanced, considering low, medium, and high-skilled fields.

The researchers explain that women are now proportionately more likely than men to have some years of post-secondary education. However, the study found that irrespective of whether a job requires college level education, medium or low level skills, those predominantly held by women typically attract lower median earnings than those with either a more even gender balance or predominantly held by men.

The study acknowledges significant exceptions, particularly among medium-skilled occupations. Dental hygienists, the great majority of whom are women, have higher weekly median earnings (US$956) than occupations almost exclusively held by men such as electricians (US$856) or carpenters (US$665). However, over 80 per cent of dental hygienists have at least an associate degree. Only 20 per cent of electricians, and even fewer carpenters, have attained similar levels of education. Researchers point out that women currently require a higher level of formal education to to achieve similar earnings.

Ariane Hegewisch, a study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research explained:

"All workers are likely to do better if they have at least some post-secondary school qualifications. Yet while it is still possible without college to earn a decent wage in some male-dominated occupations, the same is not true in female-dominated occupations. Almost as important as getting a qualification, however, is the field in which you qualify. A speech language pathologist - an occupation that is predominantly female - on average makes US$1153 per week, compared with a pharmacist - an occupation nearly half female - who receives median earnings of US$1841, a difference of close to US$700 for a week of full-time work."

The study found a less significant difference in median earnings for workers in low-skilled occupations. Researchers explain that the Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies nursing and psychiatric aides; maids, housekeepers and cleaners; and personal and home care aides as the largest categories of female-dominated, low-skilled occupations. They are much more likely to result in wages close to the poverty threshold than male-dominated, low-skilled occupations (such as truck drivers, laborers and ground maintenance workers). Median weekly earnings in 2009 were US$553 for this category of male-dominated occupations compared to US$408 for their female equivalents.

Robert Drago, research director for the Institute for Women's Policy Research, commented:

"Policy makers need to pay attention to the stalled progress in gender desegregation. Occupational segregation carries costs for the economy and employers by exacerbating skill shortages and causing reduced productivity. It also costs working families. Particularly in low-skilled jobs, working in an occupation predominantly held by women instead of one held by men, may be the difference between earning a poverty wage and earning a family supporting wage."

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